Jane spent her twenties and the first part of her thirties chasing promotions at work, but when she achieved what she’d set out to do, she discovered that it wasn’t what she had wanted after all. In search of a creative outlet, she turned to writing fiction, but cites the disciplines learnt in the business world as what helps her finish her first 120,000-word novel.
Her first, Half-truths and White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award and was described by Joanne Harris as ‘A story of secrets, lies, grief and, ultimately, redemption, charmingly handled by this very promising new writer.’ She was hailed by The Bookseller as ‘One to Watch.’ Five self-published novels have followed: I Stopped Time, These Fragile Things, A Funeral for an Owl, An Unchoreographed Life and now her latest release, An Unknown Woman. Jane’s favourite description of fiction is that it is ‘made-up truth.’
I’ve been intrigued by your writing for a while, Jane, so it’s lovely to have you as my guest where my readers can find out more too. In An Unknown Woman, the fire was a terrible disaster for your heroine, Anita; her whole life literally went up in smoke. Do you think we all need the shock of a deep crisis to reassess our own identity and our relationships with our parents?
I could give you a very short answer, namely – no. And I certainly wouldn’t wish a crisis of the magnitude Anita suffered on anyone.
I wanted to explore the question, ‘If we are who we own, who are we when we have nothing?’ Parker J. Palmer described identity as ‘an ever-evolving core within which our genetics, culture, loved ones, those we cared for, people who have harmed us and people we have harmed, the deeds done (good and ill) to self and others, experiences lived, and choices made come together to form who we are at this moment.’ So, in a way, it is quite a reflective novel in which Anita has to revisit her past before she can move forwards.
Then, six months into the writing, my sister and her husband lost their house and most of what they owned to the winter floods of 2013. What had been an imagined scenario became only too real. My relationship with the characters changed as I saw what my sister and brother in law were going through. I steered Anita and her family in a slightly different direction to the one I had planned, not imagining for one minute that my sister’s life would still be on hold months after release of the novel. As of last week, she still didn’t have permission to demolish the shell, let alone planning permission so that they can start rebuilding. If you asked her, I expect she would stay that she is living in a state of limbo.
Of course, times of crisis force you to think about the things you value the most, people you have perhaps taken for granted. I have several friends for whom a life-changing illness has made them re-evaluate their futures. For others, it’s becoming parents that makes them appreciate their own parents. Actually, in Anita’s case, I think that her parents re-evaluated their relationship with her rather than the other way around. They felt they had come uncomfortably close to losing her.
I read a quote I liked the other day. ‘The writer’s job is to get the main character up the tree, and once they are there, to throw rocks at them.’ That’s what I did – and Anita finds one hell of a lot of rocks flying in her direction. I wonder if I’ve been too cruel.
When I finished reading An Unknown Woman, I felt all the women were unknown – Anita, her mother and the woman in the painting. Was this deliberate on your part?
Quite early in the novel, Anita’s mother, Patti, is reflecting on taking her to the V&A, where they saw fabulous costumes made by ‘unknown dressmakers’ and Patti recalls how her young daughter had said to her that the dressmaker must have been a woman, “Because if it had been a man, we’d know his name.”
It was considered that Patti had enormous promise. She was the first one in her family to get A Levels. But she married young, fell pregnant almost immediately and did what most women of her generation did: she gave up work. So she went from being this carefree young woman to a housewife within the space of a year and, of course, it changed her. I think she very felt very alone – almost as if she’d become invisible. And, of course, Anita undergoes an identity crisis when she loses almost everything she owns. Forced to start from scratch, she has to discover who she is all over again.
As for the portrait you refer to, I find it fascinating. Part of the Royal Collection for over 300 years, it was labelled as a portrait of Elizabeth I. But that all changed when an art historian pointed out something very striking about the lady in question. It was quickly claimed that the frame on which Queen Elizabeth’s name was inscribed had been recycled. They had no idea who the real subject was. But the fact remains that the painting has been altered substantially, and we have to ask, why go to all that trouble if there wasn’t something to hide?
To me, the unknown woman came to represent every woman whose name has not been preserved in history. And there are many of them. The fact is that even a Queen may wear a mask.
You obviously feel very strongly about self-publishing, but until recently it’s been regarded as simultaneously brave and slightly shameful. Are we over this now?
Alison, we were both at Indie Author Fair in April, and I didn’t see a lot of shame in the room! I felt an incredible buzz when I heard industry commentators say that we shouldn’t try to mirror what is happening in traditional publishing, but to offer readers an alternative.
The majority of authors who have explored the traditional route to publication will, at some point have been told (often having paid hundreds or even thousands of pounds to hear that advice) that no author serious about his or her craft would consider self-publishing. Given that publishing is such a rapidly moving industry, and being a little charitable, it’s just possible that advice was still true in 2011. It was no longer true by November 2012 when I attended my first self-publishing conference.
We know from statistics published by Kobo which books readers were most likely to give up on halfway through – and the results were surprising. They included critically acclaimed and prize-winning novels. It really seems that readers are genuinely fed up with being told what they should be reading.
Eimear McBride used the platforms from her numerous competition wins to challenge publishers to deliver fiction that is both challenging and entertaining. Publishers have become more and more risk adverse, to the extent that many consider that indie publishing is the new high ground for ground-breaking fiction.
And with advances falling and publishers’ contract terms being unduly restrictive, the CEO of The Society of Authors had said on record that they’re no longer fair or sustainable, suggesting that members explore self-publishing as a viable alternative. That’s where I see the main growth in self-publishing coming from – authors who have previously been under contract.
Speaking for myself, self-publishing has been the mechanism that freed me to be more ambitious in terms of where I wanted to take my fiction. Remove the pressure of trying of tying to mould something to fit the current publishing market – which agents admit is risk-adverse and overly-commercialised – and it grows wings.
Thank you, Jane, and may your sales of An Unknown Woman take wings too.
Read my review on Amazon
About An Unknown Woman
‘If we are what we own, who are we when we have nothing?’
When you look in the mirror and ask the person staring back, Who are you? do you know the answer?
At the age of forty-six, Anita Hall knows exactly who she is. She has lived with partner Ed for fifteen years and is proud of all they’ve achieved. They go out into the world separately: Ed with one eye on the future in the world of finance; Anita with one foot the past, a curator at Hampton Court Palace. This is the life she has chosen – choices that weren’t open to her mother’s generation – her dream job, equal partnership, freedom from the monotony of parenthood, living mortgage-free in a quirky old house she adores.
The future seems knowable and secure. But then Anita finds herself standing in the middle of the road watching her home and everything inside it burn to the ground. Before she can come to terms with the magnitude of her loss, hairline cracks begin to appear in her perfect relationship. And returning to her childhood home in search of comfort, she stumbles upon the secret that her mother has kept hidden, a taboo so unspeakable it can only be written about.
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